Good guy, bad guy. It’s what you do if you’re making a basic action/adventure movie. In Die Hard, you have John McClane as the hero… and the most interesting, most charismatic, most important secondary character is Alan Rickman having the time of his life as Hans Gruber. In Face/Off, you’ve got John Travolta as the good guy (or bad guy) and Nicholas Cage as the bad guy (or good guy) and who the hell can remember anybody else in that film? Superman’s got Lex Luther, Batman’s got the Joker, and Jennifer in I Spit on Your Grave has her evil rapists. Good guy, bad guy. A simple-minded formula for people who want to sit and watch simple-minded virtue triumph while things blow up. You give them what they want, and they are happy.
Olivier Megaton, director of Colombiana is not trying to be fancy. He wants to give you the good guy—he hired Zoe Saldana to play heroine Cattaleya, gave her lots of firepower, skintight outfits, and a tragic backstory, and sent her out there to right wrongs and/or cause explosions. And he wants to give you the bad guy too. Enter evil Colombian drug lord who murdered Cattaleya’s parents while she watched—offensively stereotypical, yes, but for that very reason an efficient fulfillment of narrative expectations. So you see crime lord Don Luis (Beto Benitas) and his henchmen Marco (Jordi Molia) pop up at the beginning all swarthy and sneering and you say, okay, so these are the guys we hate; for the balance of the film we’ll get to see them being sneaky and nasty and underhanded and ruthless and then at the end they’ll get their satisfying comeuppance.
Except… somewhere, somehow, something goes horribly wrong. Cattaleya, the good guy (or in this case good gal), wreaks horrible vengeance on slimy evildoers just the way she’s supposed to, but somehow the prime evildoers, the guys we’re supposed to love to hate, are brutally blindsided not by our heroine, but rather by a series of viciously sodden subplots. There’s lots of back and forth with Catalleya’s adoptive, tough, but tender-hearted uncle. There’s sexy shenanigans with the hot artist-guy boyfriend with the adorable sign between his ears proclaiming, “this space for rent.” There’s the earnest cop and his earnest cop sidekick who pursue Saldana by drinking coffee and looking at computer screens and talking into cell phones, or sometimes by doing all three while simultaneously reusing footage from every Hollywood film with a copy from the last decade.
By the time we’ve eliminated the uncle and watched the boyfriend take off his shirt and watched the cop and his subplot emit their last indifferent fart, Megaton has almost run through his hour and 40 minutes, and there’s no time left for the baddies. The final apocalyptic fistfight between Cattaleya and Marco is shot in kinetic jerky fast forward, presumably because the director was worried the clock would run out. And after that, the supposed criminal mastermind doesn’t even get a face-to-face confrontation. It’s like Saldana spent her life looking for revenge, and then just shrugged and said, “Ah, to hell with it. I guess I’d rather whimper at that boring artist guy, or maybe talk tough to that cop, presuming I can tell him apart from all the other cops.”
The saddest part is that Colombiana has a real star; a hero with charisma and beauty and oodles of killer instinct. Not Saldana, alas, who has the intensity of a mildly weepy guppy, but Amandla Stenberg. Stenberg plays Cattaleya as a child with a restrained and canny brutality that brings the film’s first half to life despite the best efforts of every adult involved in the project. When the young actor impassively makes herself vomit, or declares to her uncle with utter conviction that she’s given up on being Xena Warrior Princess, and now she wants to be a killer, you know that here, at least, is a hero who deserves the best villain Hollywood can dish out.
Denied that, however, she should at least get the chance to kick Olivier Megaton a good crack in the shins on our behalf. Vengeance is beautiful.